Friday, April 17, 2009

The unexpected quiet

One thing I absolutely love about photography is that it's not just about the hero moments. Yes those pictures of amazing sights have the ability to captivate us, but I find that just as powerful are those quiet little moments that maybe don't amaze us so much, but still hold lots of interest.

Those little vignettes of people's lives that show what to them is an ordinary situation, but to us seems so different and unique.

Take this shot here. I was in the middle of absolutely nowhere in Mali, West Africa. I mean there was nothing that I could see for miles in any direction. And we were stopped by the side of a road having a bit of a break, something to eat and drink.

Then all of a sudden in the distance we could see this little black dot approaching us. Too big and slow for an animal, and coming in too straight a line. Adhering to my rule to always have my camera nearby, I grabbed it and a telephoto lens out of the bag to have a look.

It was a man dressed up in a shirt and pants riding his bicycle along this little dirt track in the middle of nowhere. Nothing unusual for him I'm sure, but for me it was out of this world. I knew that I had to take a photo, even if it was just a reminder of a brief, chance encounter.

With the telephoto lens there was a lot of road between me and him and I could have chosen anywhere to take the image. So I scanned in front of the man just to look for a nice background for him to ride into. And then I noticed the small road sign in the top right hand corner - just a nice little detail to break up the picture and give a bit more interest.

So I pointed the camera there and just waited for a few minutes until he road into view. I just took the one shot. As he road past we waved, exchanged bonjours and on he went. Where he was going I have no idea. I'm sure he was just as amused by us as we were of him. Just a quiet little moment. No spectacular acts of heroism. Moments of passion. Moments of anything really. But for me a nice little image that captures a man going about his daily life in what, to me, seemed an incredible place.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Moving things around

A lot of travel photography is done in a documentary style. You record what's happening while it's happening without affecting the action too much. You're just there to record the goings-on in a (hopefully) artistic and insightful way.

But that's not always the case. Sometimes you have to create the images, rather than just waiting and hoping they'll happen.

A perfect example is this piping hot bowl of Ramen noodles in Japan. This little town in the middle of nowhere is famous (at least in Japan) for its Ramen noodles. Well one restaurant is.

The result of being a very famous, very tiny restaurant set in an old train station is that it gets very crowded. And with the smoking laws in Japan being pretty lax (ie non-existent) it gets pretty smokey. So rather than brave the inside we decided to sit outside on this gorgeous old wooden table with the train station in the background.

The staff nearly had a fit. It was cold for one, and two in all the years they'd been open they'd never had customers sit outside. Go figure. Anyway they brought us out our famous Ramen noodles. It was very photogenic sitting there in the middle of the table but it needed something to make it better.

The first thing I realised was that I wanted the name of the train station (Yamubetsu) in the background, as well as the rounded wagon wheels so I moved my Ramen over to the middle of the table. I then realised there were a couple of big obstacles in the way - namely my wife and her Dad.

So I banished them to the other end of the table so I could get my photo. Just small adjustments that help make an image. The mistake a lot of beginning photographers make is that they're scared to move things around. To ask if it's OK to put this thing over there, or ask this person to come into a better light for a photo. Don't ask and you don't get!

So the next time you come up against a great subject but it's in the wrong light or position, don't wait for providence to move it for you. Get up and do it yourself.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Live View and critical focus

Last week I posted about how handy the Live View function is when trying to create a nice white balance. I have to admit that before I bought a camera with Live View I wasn't really convinced of its usefulness. I had become so used to composing my images through a viewfinder that the idea of looking at the screen to do it on anything other than a little point and shoot seemed to be a waste of time.

Then I got a camera with it on and now I'm hooked. Not only for the white balance trick I talked about above but for its ability to really help nail the focus in your images.

One of the things I have always loved about nature and landscape photography is really sharp pictures. I'm a sucker for photographs with razor sharp edges and lots of detail.

The only problem I ever have with auto-focus is that sometimes you just question whether it's focussed on the right part of the picture. Sometimes it's right on and every so often you get the feeling that it's just a little out. It's particularly noticeable with macro photography, which is why a lot of macro stuff is done with manual focus.

Which is fine if you've got 20/20 vision but if you're like me and your vision is probably less reliable than your auto-focus (I've got a pointed cornea and am just about blind in one eye!) it makes it a little difficult.

If only you could make the picture bigger to help you focus. Well with Live View you can. As well as the autofocus modes Live View also has a great aid to manual focus. It lets you zoom into your composition while looking at it on the screen. So, fo example, for the mushrooms above I set up a composition I liked through the viewfinder and then turned on Live View. I could then zoom into the composition (up to 10X magnification) before pressing the shutter to make sure I was focused exactly where I wanted to be.

It's a bit hard to tell from the little thumbnail above so here's a 100% crop. This is pretty much the view you get looking at the Live View screen, so much better than trying to focus manually through the viewfinder. As you can see I've manually focussed on an area just behind the front edge of the left hand mushroom. You can see with such a small depth of field how important it is to be focussed just on the right spot.

And this isn't just useful for tiny things. I've been using it in general landscape work - in particular when using a telephoto lens - to manually make sure I'm focussed just where I want to be to get the sharpest pictures possible.

Of course that's not all that's involved in getting sharp images but it's a step in the right direction. Oh and if your subject moves you're in a bit of trouble, but for landscape and macro work (and of course still-life images) this really is a major improvement in helping us get sharper images.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Comparing your travel photography...

to the work of others isn't always the best way to improve your craft. For one it can be damn intimidating. You visit some exotic location, photograph your bum off, fill a whole heap of memory cards and come away pleased as punch.

Then on the airport on the way back you pick up a glossy picture book on said destination by a famous photographer and rapidly fall into depression as you realise that what you thought was great photography doesn't quite come up to scratch.

Take heart, we've all been there. It's great to look at the work of the masters and to appreciate what it is they do. How they see the world, their use of technique, the way they manage to gain access to create such wonderful images. And then you file that information somewhere into the back of your brain and look at your own pictures.

And that's where you'll learn what you need to know. By comparing the images you took a year, two years or more ago to the ones you take now, you will feel much better about how you have improved. Believe me.

Before I had fully realised how passionate I was about photography and decided to make this my profession I was a backpacking bum! I had an SLR, a couple of lenses and a tripod and bought slide film as I went (and as the budget allowed). And I look at the pictures I shot back then (which at the time I thought were pretty hot!) and cringe ever so slightly - OK quite a lot.

Let's take India. No two ways about it, I was simply overwhelmed by the scale, the cacophony, the bedlam. And it shows in my images. You can't create art when you're mentally struggling to make sense of it all. So in my collection of roughly 400 images there aren't many gems. A handful at most.

But I could see the seeds of where I was going. Moments of clarity where it came together. The image above was one such moment. I was walking around the outskirts of the Dalai Lama's residence in Dharamsala with my wife when we came across this little old Tibetan man carving prayers into sheets of rock. He had a customer, an elderly nun who agreed to be in my image.

So I quickly framed the image with my wide-angle lens and highlighted the bright colours of her habit and the red stone in the background. Wide-angle lenses and strong colour have since become a bit of a trademark of mine so I can say that even back then I was improving and developing a style.

Of course I always look at bad stuff I took in exotic places and think, 'If only I knew then what I know now.' But I didn't. And the mistakes I made, the compositions I botched, the exposure stuff-ups that happened were all part of the learning process. And by comparing my work now to a few years ago I can see my images developing and changing. Still just as many mistakes because I'm always experimenting and pushing the limits, but more successes as well.

So the next time you look at some wonderful photography and feel down because your own images don't seem to be as good, go back into the files and take a look at what you were shooting a couple of years ago. I guarantee you'll feel a lot better about how far you've come and can look forward even more to getting better as you go forward.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Monday's link

Well I guess in this day and age we all need a good laugh. I mean stock reports and the finance news just isn't keeping us happy so I think it's time for a belly laugh. But of course the mirth has to be photography oriented and without a doubt the funniest (in fact it's probably the only) photography comic strip is What The Duck.

Join our hapless photographer as he battles the brides from hell, the assistant from who-knows-where and generally stumbles through his life as a photographer. It's pretty funny except for when you realise it's actually you in the strip! Enjoy.

And as a little bonus I thought I'd point you to yet another great piece by travel photographer Bob Krist. In this article he talks a little about how he uses an Epson Multimedia Storage device not only to back up his pics but also to help break down cultural barriers. Kind of like my little photo album on steroids!